I remember having college professors like Walter Vale, the main character in Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, played by an Oscar-nominated Richard Jenkins. Emotionless, monotone, disinterested in their work after teaching the same class year after year; as they would drone on in another endless lecture, you might wonder what their life was like outside the classroom, or if they even had one.
McCarthy’s film delves into the life of someone like this, and uses some outside forces to augment it. It’s some years after Walter Vale’s wife has passed away; he teaches a single class at a Connecticut university, using the rest of his time to work on his book.
“What’s your book about?” people ask him, a question he isn’t entirely comfortable answering. He couldn’t be less interested in students; upon receiving a late paper, he rejects it outright, without caring to hear the “personal issues” that delayed it.
A seminar in NYC forces an inconvenient trip. When Walter gets to his New York apartment, he finds a naked woman in his bathtub, and an angry boyfriend demanding answers – they’ve rented the apartment from a man named Ivan, not realizing it actually belongs to someone else.
Things are cleared up, and Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira) are quick to leave; you get the feeling they’ve been through something like this before.
Walter, I think, gets that feeling too. He watches Tarek and Zainab struggle with their bags on the street, then goes out to ask them if they have a place to stay, and invites them to stay with him until they get one.
Over the next few days, they bond – Zainab, from Senegal, keeps her distance, but Tarek, from Syria, tries to strike up a friendship with Walter. He plays the African drum, and after noticing Walter’s interest, begins to give him lessons.
Unfortunately, Zainab and Tarek are illegal immigrants. Tarek is detained, and scheduled for deportation. Walter hires a lawyer, but, well, what else can he do? Tarek’s mother comes to New York after not hearing from her son for a few days, and Walter tries to help her through the situation.
The Visitor is a delicate little film that carefully sidesteps the usual clichés. Most of the real action seems to occur off screen, while what occurs onscreen is a lot of flavor.
Everything has to come together for a film like this to work, and it does – Jenkins and the rest of the cast is excellent, and McCarthy really takes care of his characters, both as screenwriter and director. These are people we slowly come to care a lot about.
There are a lot of good things about The Visitor, but one of the best may be the emergence of Jenkins, an instantly recognizable character actor who has been finally given his due here.
Director McCarthy, a character actor himself (love his brief work on The Wire) has scored his second real winner, following 2003’s The Station Agent.